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A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey…

A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (2012)

by Errol Morris

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This is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy, and what I want most out of my true crime: a relentless chronicle of all the things we don't know, can't know, could have known but don't because somebody screwed up; an analysis of how a crime turns into a story turns into a trial, and how disconnected that can sometimes be from the truth. This case in particular is one where the truth hasn't seemed to matter much to a lot of people, but it's by far the only one. Morris does a respectable job of turning the documentary format into a book, and he's clear about what he does and what he doesn't think we can know about this case, and what could and should have been done differently, and who screwed it up beyond salvaging. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Jan 9, 2017 |
Outstanding work from Errol Morris, digging through mountains of evidence to try and figure out what the hell really happened in this case. Morris' task is complicated throughout by missteps by the military police, prosecution, and even the defense—contaminating the crime scene, influencing witnesses, and even hiding evidence outright.

The psychological story presented by the prosecution (and McGinniss's Fatal Vision) should have been recognized as absurd from the start, and Morris does an especially good job of pointing out how such an accusation distorts every piece of evidence around it, reshaping it to support it. No motive or personality just goes to show how much of a calculated, manipulative killer at heart he was! Lack of guilt over the murders is no longer exculpatory, but only goes to show how much of a psychopath MacDonald was! This is all preposterous, and exactly the type of diagnosis designed to cover up the giant blank spots in the prosecution's case. (Also, Freddy Kassab comes off as far more predisposed to violence and mental illness; what's his alibi on the night of the killings?)

More troubling is the exclusion of evidence from both the trial and the defense's purview. a decision that is AT BEST willful ignorance, and more likely misconduct on the part of the prosecution. Some of the problem was simple incompetence from a department not really set up to handle complicated murder scenes—allowing dozens of people to trample all over the crime scene, and botching simple tasks like collecting fingerprints. Yet others were from a total lack of motivation in following-up other leads. (For example, lending so little credence to Helena Stokely's interrogation that the detective didn't even bother to take notes!)

But worst of all is the decisions during the trial to distort and withhold evidence so that it pointed to MacDonald's guilt. Pre-trial discovery for the defense was so limited as to be almost nominal, leading to their strategy to focus on MacDonald's personality simply because those were the facts they had access to! Lab notes and other working products were similarly withheld and distorted from the defense, discrepancies that came out years after the fact. And all of this is underpinned by a judge who undercut any attempt by the defense to present their case, throwing out psychiatric testimony and preventing evidence of Stokely's confessions from reaching the jury.

In sum, Morris presents an airtight case that MacDonald did NOT receive a fair trial (or preceding investigation) in any way, shape or form. More clouded is the question of his actual innocence, both by the shards of hard-to-reconcile evidence as well as the outright botching of the investigation. So much of what would be needed has been lost to time, but the evidence that remains—and that which Morris was able to gather—points to Stokely's confessions being accurate, even if we don't know the full story or other involved parties. Here is a woman who confessed repeatedly and to almost anyone who would hear her, regardless of consequences or anything to gain. And the worst part of all is that her testimony was contaminated (and nakedly discarded) by the media furor and probable threats from the prosecution.

While not as concrete as his documentary The Thin Blue Line, Morris is very convincing that MacDonald was screwed (and continues to be screwed) by the justice system. It's troubling to see the myriad Goodreads reviews concluding otherwise, rejecting Morris simply because it isn't a tidy and neat case. Real life is often more complicated than we'd like, and the simple story told by Fatal Vision—of a cold calculating killer who was eventually brought to justice by Freddy Kassab—is reductive, misleading, and most likely wrong. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
I saw this referred to as "an epistomological crime story", which is a pretty accurate description. Film maker Errol Morris investigated the trial and conviction of Jeffrey MacDonald, a Greeen Beret accused of murdering his wife and children, and attempting to cover it up with a cockamamie story about crazed hippies. What Morris discovered was that the crime scene was ruined by incompetent investigators, evidence was ignored or destroyed, and a woman who repeatedly confessed to being part of the crime was never considered a suspect.
Can we ever know what happened? Morris waded through reams of court documents , and interviewed dozens of participants in the case to find answers. Whether or not you believe in MacDonald's innocence, it 's certain that he didn't get a fair trial. Morris holds particular scorn for Joe McGinnis, the author of "Fatal Vision", who gained MacDonalds' confidence then betrayed him by writing a factually bereft book imlpicating MacDonald's guilt.
How do we know what we know? How do we arrive at conclusions? Great book.
It's also a graphically interesting book. Every 4-5 pages is a black page with a clean white drawing of a piece of evidence from the case (hat, typewriter, rocking horse). It almost felt like watching an Errol Morris film. ( )
  HenryKrinkle | Jul 23, 2014 |
While it doesn't convince that MacDonald is innocent, it is moderately more successful presenting a case for an unfair trial. I enjoyed the book; it was well-written and organized, lucid and researched. But it's conclusion, I believe, is wrong. ( )
1 vote bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
I am from North Carolina. I’m quite familiar with the eastern part of the state, having lived there off and on for almost a quarter-century. Nothing surprised me more in this unusual book than learning there was apparently a thriving “hippie” scene in Fayetteville in 1970. It seems unimaginable from what I experienced, but the returning military from SE Asia, heroin, etc. dynamic was quite different from anything I remember. Anyway, while I was familiar with the broad outlines of the Jeffrey MacDonald case, I have never read any of the books about it (or seen the mini-series or any of the other documentaries) [. . .]

  joncgoodwin | Oct 20, 2012 |
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Book description
A meditation on truth and the justice system, A former private detective and director of The Thin Blue Line uncovers layers hidden in Jeffrey MacDonald's prosecution. He was convicted of the 1970 brutal murder of his pregnant wife and two young daughters in 1979 and remains in prison today. The results of an investigation spanning over twenty years is shocking because most elements we were told about the case were misleading and crucial facts of the case against MacDonald were withheld from the defense.
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Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and former private detective Errol Morris examines the nature of evidence and proof in the infamous Jeffrey MacDonald murder case. In 1979 MacDonald was convicted of the brutal 1970 murder of his wife and two children, and remains in prison today. Since then a number of bestselling books, including Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision, and a blockbuster television miniseries have attempted to solve and explain the MacDonald case. Here, Morris, who has been investigating the case for nearly two decades, reveals that almost everything we know about it is ultimately flawed, and an innocent man may be behind bars. In a reinvention of the true-crime thriller, Morris looks behind the haze of myth. Drawing on court transcripts, lab reports, and original interviews, he brings a complete forty-year history back to life and allows the reader to explore the case as a detective might by confronting the evidence as if for the first time.--From publisher description.… (more)

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